Sovereignty, Treaty, Recognition: Voices From Community

In recent years, you might have heard or been party to discussions around ‘voice,’ ‘recognition,’ ‘sovereignty’ or ‘treaty’.

These concepts have become buzzwords in Indigenous Affairs and media coverage, plastered on pamphlets and referenced one hundred times over by politicians or in government consultations.

While we may see and use some of those terms regularly and offhandedly, their meanings have evolved over a long period of time and with the complexities akin to the communities it represents.

If you’ve found yourself lost along the way, you’re not alone.

With a potential referendum on the cards to change the Constitution, it’s important to understand the origin stories of well-known campaigns and the possibilities of what can be achieved.

NITV has spoken to a range of Aboriginal people, including those representing the government, to hear what models for Indigenous recognition are on the table, why they should be supported and pursued, and if and how different models can co-exist.

Teamed with your own lived experience and research, this article presents a foundation of views on Indigenous recognition to help build and form your own opinions.

The 2020 working’s of constitutional change to recognise Aboriginal people is under-pinned by a long list of expert panels, Senate inquiries, constitutional commissions and referendum councils, reports and recommendations made since the 1980’s.

So where to from here?

The Uluru Statement

One proposal at the forefront of these discussions comes from the red centre on Anangu country, back in 2017.

‘The Uluru Statement from the Heart’ is arguably the most well known model to be put forward, described as the culmination of 13 three-day dialogues held across the country with Aboriginal people.

‘From the Heart’ is a public awareness campaign aimed at generating more support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, in particular an Aboriginal advisory body enshrined in the constitution.

Bearing witness to the changing hands and ideals of politicians, the Uluru Statement from the Heart has taken on a ‘no-compromise’ stance and was given as a proposal to the Australian public, rather than to those in parliament.

Only four months after being delivered, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ruled out the proposal and falsely described it as a ‘third chamber’ of parliament.

Fast-forward to the Morrison government where the Minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, promised earlier this year to go to a referendum in this political term.

He has proposed a question to “recognise” Aboriginal people in the constitution and to instead legislate a ‘voice to government’.

That referendum timeline has since been receded and a co-design report containing proposals for a ‘Voice’ has now been received, but we’ll hear more from the government later on.

While advocates maintain the Uluru Statement hasn’t been ruled out, the ‘From the Heart’ campaign now looks to supporters on the ground to push for the policy to be fully adopted.

For Bundjalung and Kungarakan woman, Dani Larkin, the possibility of legislating a body rather than enshrining it in the constitution would be an “unfortunate” and “disappointing” outcome.

Ms Larkin is the great granddaughter of Yorta Yorta man and legendary activist Jack Patten and she believes the struggle for substantial constitutional recognition through the Uluru Statement from the Heart is the latest experience of fighting for black civil rights.


A group of First Nations people who walked out on the Uluru summit back in 2017 included Victorian delegate and Gunnai & Gunditjmara woman, Lidia Thorpe.

Ms Thorpe is the new senator for Victoria representing the Australian Greens and has vowed to advocate for a national treaty or state-based treaties as the best way forward for Indigenous recognition.

Victoria is arguably the most developed in the treating-making process, forming the First Peoples’ Assembly - the democratically-elected body responsible for establishing a treaty negotiation framework in Victoria – and establishing a truth-telling and justice process in collaboration with the state government.

There are also similar processes underway in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia.

While a treaty wouldn’t require a referendum, Lidia Thorpe believes there would still need to be a thorough and inclusive consultation process for every clan or nation to be able to opt in or out.


Grass-roots activism has long been the driving power behind bettering the lives of Aboriginal people.

Aboriginal youth is especially shaping our political landscape in new ways through the internet and social media, as well co-ordinating, mobilising and leading protests through the streets to demand change.

On the frontline are members of WAR – Warriors of the Aboriginal resistance.

Gamilaraay, Kooma and Muruwari man, Boe Spearim, can be seen with a microphone in hand, leading a rally in Meanjin, or heard on his ‘Frontier Wars’ podcast detailing the heroic stories of our old people and the atrocities they faced.

Boe is part of the Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance (WAR), a group self-described as a coalition of "young Aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and Aboriginal Nationalism.”

They strive for resistance and revival.

WAR’s official stance is to not engage with colonial structures, like existing on an electoral role or voting in terms of a potential referendum, but Boe understands the essence of self-determination allows mob to make their own decisions in that regard.

‘Sovereignty’ is central to his idea of significant recognition, meaning the eradication of a top-down approach and having all Aboriginal people able to have their say during appropriate engagement.

While Boe supports further exploration of the treaty process, he says there isn’t currently a consensus model for Indigenous recognition and until there is - Community cannot be spoken for.

The ranks of WAR are filled with young, passionate Aboriginal activists, including Ambēyang man, Callum Clayton-Dixon.

A linguist and historian, Callum is a published author of work that examines the resistance and resilience of Aboriginal people. His PhD studies have also included practical work towards reviving his local traditional language.

His studies of history have shaped his hopes for the future.

Callum believes proposals such as designated seats for elected Aboriginal representatives in the parliament or establishing a treaty or treaties would be more meaningful, viable and substantial ways of recognition.

In his opinion, there needs to be more education and discussion around lesser-known proposals so they can garner the support of Aboriginal people.

Elected Seats

The journey towards constitutional change and finding a model for recognition has largely been paved by the Aboriginal pioneers who have fought for the most basic of human rights.

A trailblazer for land rights and civil liberties, Palawa man Michael Mansell has been advocating for Aboriginal self-determination for more than fifty years.

As an activist, lawyer and chair of the Aboriginal Land Council of Tasmania, Mr Mansell believes we as Aboriginal people have a choice to make between symbolic and meaningful recognition.

If given the ultimate power to decide, Mr Mansell details how he would achieve substantial Aboriginal recognition.

Voice Co-Design

Ultimately the way forward for Indigenous recognition will be decided within the realms of possibility and the closed doors of government.

What appeared as a window of opportunity began in May 2019, when the first Aboriginal Minister for Indigenous Australians was appointed in Noongar man, Ken Wyatt.

The federal government has put together three advisory bodies to co-design a ‘Voice’ for Aboriginal people, working at a senior, national, regional and local level.

On November 10th, the Minister said he had received the final report by the bodies and that it would be released publically “in the near future.”

Speaking to NITV, Minister Wyatt maintains a clear distinction between constitutional recognition and establishing what he describes as a ‘voice to government.’

The co-design bodies have advised the government of what they deem to be the best way forward, with Minister Wyatt citing at least six options for a voice.

When discussing constitutional reform, he emphasizes the importance of being measured and considered and maintains, “All options are on the table.”

The Government

The job of consulting Aboriginal communities and putting forward models for Indigenous recognition to government belonged to the co-design bodies.

Kungarakan and Iwaidja man, Professor Tom Calma is the co-chair of the federal government’s Voice Co-Design Senior Advisory Group.

He explains their roles is to present a number of different models to the federal government, who will then determine what shape a ‘voice’ will take.

The body aims to have at least two models ready to be considered by cabinet by October.

Following that “complicated” process, it will then go to community (Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal) for their thoughts.

With the report now finalised, the federal government’s plan is to have the report considered by Cabinet, put out for consultation and then legislated – all before the next election.

Professor Calma says while it is difficult to navigate the different bodies, land councils and communities, it’s important to use this opportunity to ensure that government and elected officials no longer determine Aboriginal futures.

For the groups that aren’t willing to compromise on their supported model, Tom Calma says we need to take advantage of the opportunity we have.

The advancement of Aboriginal people has been fought for since Europeans landed on our shores.

When deciding any form of representation for a community, there is division of opinion.

While supporters of the different models of recognition are deep-rooted in passion and at times, the assertion that their model is best – A common theme is to achieve something far removed from tokenism or symbolism.

All models for a way forward are more than concepts and buzzwords as our existence as Aboriginal people is political.

At this time in our history, with a government that has put recognition and voice – in whatever form that takes – on the national agenda, the weight of what we do next is heavy.

Written By: Shahni Wellington
Edited By: Jack Latimore
Produced By: Jack Latimore and Daniel Gallahar
Videos Edited By: Rohan Scarr and Tim Hagan